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Shot Down: German POW WWII True Story Paperback – March 10, 1997
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
It was the winter of 1944, colder than hell, and large soft snowflakes were falling. Within this scene stood a pack of men who used to be soldiers, but whose lives had been transformed into a sloppy ragged human mass of half frozen and starved creatures.
In case you had not guessed, these men were the best of our nations fighting forces. They were all flying officers of the United States Air Force. Before being shot down, most over enemy territory, these men were the proudest, healthiest, bravest, wildest, and keenest hand-picked group of men in the world. Now they are POW's. Prisoners of the Second World War. As you might expect, prison life had not treated these men very well. Most all of them had lost many pounds and their bodies showed it. Sunken eyeballs and pot-bellied bodies were the direct result of confinement.
The war was running down, or should I say nearing it's end, and the Allied troops were getting so close to our prison camp that the Germans were forced to move us or loose us. The noise from the guns in the near distance were getting closer and had forced them to plan this move. Walking was the only form of travel, so that's what we did. Orders came to be ready to leave the next morning and we were advised to make up bed rolls and back packs for carrying everything we owned. Making ropes out of torn strips of rags, we managed to form backpacks with shoulder straps. My first pack was about the size of an outhouse, so I had to go back and toss out all my goodies to get its weight down to about 50 pounds. With all our belongings packed on our shoulders, we now looked exactly like the refugees you see on your television screen.
There were 10,000 flying officer's in this one camp so getting them out of the compound and onto the road took some time. The ranking officer housed within our barracks took command and had us fall into formation when it became our turn to leave. With a single order, we started off on the journey we would never forget and would be lucky to survive.
Walking was really tough for some of the crippled ones so traveling was very slow. After a few days out, the men were getting used to sleeping in ditches, fields, along the road, and many times two and three deep for warmth. Some had tattered, torn trousers, holes in their shoes, and many different homemade hats that would put designers to shame. I happened to be one of the lucky ones. I had not lost much weight and my clothes were well kept for I had not been there as long as many of the others. I watched men get pushed beyond their limits, pass out, and be left in the ditch on the side of the road. I think most of them were picked up later by the Germans and taken to a shelter until they recuperated enough to continue.
I was chugging along setting a blistering pace of about one-half knot per hour and I could not help notice the rest of the POW's passing me by. I really didn't give a damn just as long as no German guard was prodding me with the butt of his rifle. Soon I was by myself, dragging one foot ahead of the other as walking became very hard for me.
Up ahead on the road, there was a small village made up of just a couple of homes. This village, like many of the others in this country had been formed as the farmers built their homes near each others' land borders. Many times just four houses. I hadn't reached them yet and wasn't sure that I was going to. Snow started falling, blanketing the sheet already covering the road. The wind blasted snow against our faces. Thankfully, I was protected because I was wearing enough covering on my head that I looked like an Arabian. The cloth wrappings covering my shoes were pushing little mounds of snow ahead of them as I walked. Consciousness was slowly being drained away. I walked mindlessly and without direction for a few minutes when I pointed myself toward the side of the road and soon thereafter crumbled and rolled into a half snow filled ditch. The snow felt very warm and right now I was satisfied to stay there forever. I slept off and on and when I woke I would think that I better get up or I was going to freeze to death. That did not scare me so I just kept lying there. One thought made me chuckle a bit. If I was to remove my shoes now the Germans would get me for chemical warfare. I thought that was funny.
I have no idea how long I had been lying there but I remember that the snow felt nice and warm. I could have cared less about were I was going, but I started thinking about where I had been. How the hell did I get here?
I guess to answer that question I would have to start at the beginning of this story which begins at the start of the Second World War. I was one of four brothers and three of us were of army age. My oldest brother was deferred because of TB and the third brother had a bad heart. I was well and a prime target. I really wanted to be a pilot, but looking back on my school records, private would have been more the rank I could handle. My father, knowing something about war, was worried about me and was making plans to keep me out of this one.
My Dad had a friend who was an FBI agent and had some pull. He told my dad he could get me a job in a defense factory in Buffalo, NY. I was 19 then and had a good job paying twelve dollars a week for sixty hours of work, from six p.m. to six a.m. Moving to Buffalo, which was about seven hundred miles from home, would get me a better job paying eighteen dollars a week for only forty hours of work. It sounded great to me, so I left. This FBI agent did have friends in the right places for he got his brother, me, and a school friend of mine jobs in a lens company.
Mike Belovich worked mostly out of Washington DC and was a native of my hometown, Mt. Olive. Mt. Olive was not leading the world with scientific successes or alive with great American hero's. Our people, mostly hard working Germans and Croatians, were a mixed breed of emigrants and coal minors. Our coal miner's unions made national showings. One of their leaders, a lady named Mother Jones, was even laid to rest in our small town. John L Lewis was at the peak of his career then. Mike's brother Matt had a car, so we all drove to Buffalo to start our new jobs.
The Spencer Lens plant was making some very sensitive instruments and the accuracy of their equipment played a vital part in delivering bombs to their targets. Working for this lens company automatically put me into the 4F group so we were not expected to be called to service. Ken, my schoolmate, and I were rooming with an elderly couple, Phil and ?. Phil was badly crippled from arthritis and was unable to work. On his good days, Phil was very jolly and his wife very likable. Having us around was good for them because they really needed the financial help. I'm sure that Ken felt closer to home living with them for I know I did.
Not fearing the war anymore, Ken and I started planning a family. We both got married and in ten months I became a father. I had never given up wanting to become a pilot and not being part of our fighting men did not wear well with me either. I had been watching the qualifications necessary to enlist into the Air Force and noted that they were getting less and less restrictive. The day finally came when they would take married men with children.
Talking with Ken, we both decided to take a shot at enlisting. Our wife's were agreeable, only because I think they expected us to be turned down and then we would not pester them any more. An entrance exam was scheduled within the week of our decision to apply. Ken and I went to take the test. There were seventy some applicants, all taking the entrance exam. When the grading was over, Ken and I were two of the three that passed the exam. This had to be a fixed deal for I'm sure I was not that smart, but maybe Ken was. I think that since we were not from Buffalo, NY, they were able to fill their quota without using their own people. We were enlisted within the next few days and given orders to wait for our travel orders.
We decided to go home and wait for our orders. This turned out to be a smart move because we waited for about six months before being ordered to basic training. I was young, but I sure was not in shape. They took care of that in a short time for our first mission of every day was a four mile run and then a quarter mile obstacle course. That was before breakfast. Those overweight lost weight and those underweight gained weight. We always ran between classes, ate while sitting at attention, and spoke only when spoken to. Even when we did speak, the answers were always, 'Yes Sir, No Sir, and No excuse Sir'. There were no tolerances, so we lost people every day. The upperclassmen were our supervisors and if you have ever read about upper class harassment, we had it in its meanest form. The training schedules were strict and there was no let up when it came to meeting the standards.
I lost my Mother while I was in basic training and when I returned found myself without an instructor. Finishing that course alone, I almost killed myself on my first night flight after Mom died. After that incident, they passed me on into multi-engine school. My little angel had a full time job with me for being close to death seemed to follow me around. Getting my wings and turning from a creature low enough to crawl under a snakes belly to an Officer is a remarkable change. From now on the Sir belonged to me.